The Black Market: The Month In Metal – January 2018

Mournful Congregation courtesy of Earsplit PR

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – January 2018

Mournful Congregation courtesy of Earsplit PR

On the last episode of Black Market, Doug Moore left us. He said he was going out to pick up an award while muttering “fly, Doug, fly” under his breath. He never returned. Over the past month, we’ve tried to fill his absence by building a Doug robot programmed to compare things to Metallica’s lifecycle, but it also escaped. Last time I was able to log into it, it was drearily walking along some road. Rest in power, Dougbot.

So, quick refresher on the plans we shared in our 2017 year-ender: Instead of your customary longform intro, this section will now typically (lol) eat up less of your data plan. Likewise, we’re tightening the belt on the blurbs, dropping from 15 down to a more digestible 10. All of this is intended to make a column that surveys an intentionally alienating and contrarian style a little friendlier.

But trust that the slams will remain the same. Wyatt is itching to bring you whatever he snagged in the Einstein–Rosen bridge device he constructed out of excess Québécois black metal tapes. Aaron — now going by a pen name: an unpronounceable symbol resembling this — will continue authoring the finest abstract fiction set in a dystopian alt-Boston. I’m also here. Welcome back. On with the show:

In January 2016, the following was posted to Fenriz’s Band of the Week Facebook page:

for the SERIOUS iron maiden fans out there I propose this train of thought: Many of us are not majestically thrilled by ‘gangland’ or ‘invaders’, yet we wallow and rejoice when some newcomer act sound remotely like these songs. How and why is that?

For two years, what I’ve dubbed the “Fenriz ‘Gangland’ Conundrum” has plagued my conscious thoughts. It’s a hell of a riddle, one I’ve occasionally cited. I think it suggests that we are susceptible to the familiar, but not when we’ve already measured the acceptable floor (and perhaps predicted the ceiling) of a creator’s output.

Here’s what I mean: “Gangland” and “Invaders” are the two most commonly shat-upon tracks on Iron Maiden’s iconic The Number Of The Beast, to the point where that opinion has been codified. The reasons behind that designation could be many, such as an (undeserved) fate dealt by recency bias and proximity to greatness (infernal hails all-time album closer, “Hallowed Be Thy Name“). Regardless, both songs are now heard as Iron Maiden low points. However, as the conundrum goes, if a newer band debuts with a “Gangland 2.0,” I might be far more amenable to liking it. How and why? Well, perhaps (1) it sounds like something I already generally enjoy (Iron Maiden, NWOBHM) which requires less mental energy and (2) there isn’t enough contextual information available to act any other way than irrationally optimistic. Path of least resistance, I guess.

All of that feels real. Obvious, even. But…yeesh…. When I struggle to uncover anything in the music realm backing up my proposed hows and whys, the evidence makes me feel, at best, weird and confused and, at worst, bummed the hell out.

That sense of bummed-ness can be contributed to how music familiarity has been positioned recently. A cursory Google search turns up this 2013 Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School paper. In it, researchers suggest familiarity is one of, if not the, most powerful drivers when it comes to people choosing music. Not surprisingly, the collection of studies was heavily aggregated, earning the share-optimized headline “Familiarity DOESN’T breed contempt when it comes to music: Consumers say they want new tracks but pick the same old songs.”

The paper itself isn’t particularly contentious when viewed through its intended lens: guiding marketers towards easier marks.

In the marketplace, and in our pilot study, consumers indicate that they want more novelty when in fact their choices suggest that they do not. These findings add to the list of unconscious preferences that keep consumers from being consciously aware of their actual desires (e.g., Wilson 2009). When testing whether consumers would choose particular music or a particular playlist, marketers would do well to bypass consumers’ notions of what they want, and to instead ask how familiar consumers are with the music.

If Liz Pelly’s excellent “The Problem With Muzak” is any indication, it would seem that marketers have done very well indeed. Hooray.

But, the idea that familiarity is the main driver in your musical decisions feels, I don’t know, either dispiriting or totally bogus depending on how much locus of control you assume you exhibit over defining your own taste. I mean, if I am driven by familiarity, then why do I contribute to this very column? Why does every new-release Friday fill me with existential FOMO, like I’m living the metal version of this piece by James Jackson Toth?

The Wikipedia entry for “Psychology of music preference” includes a section that attempts to account for this otherness by exploring music choice as a product of personality. It uses the “Big Five” model and lumps metalheads and the generally curious into the “openness to experience” bucket. In a nutshell, if you perceive yourself to be “open,” you’ll more readily take on challenging, novel music and tend to prefer it over music that either you’ve previously conquered or is culturally presumed to be easier to enjoy. Like the Olin Business School paper, it kind of makes sense. But it also seems way too pat, as evidenced by the section’s nod to this 2010 study:

However, this is only true up to a certain point, as another study looked at music’s ability to produce “chills” in the listeners. Although this study found that openness was the best predictor of genre preference, there is no way to use openness to experience to predict who gets chills from music. Instead, the only measure for that was frequency of listening to music and the self-rated value of the importance of music in one’s life.

You’ll like music a lot if you…like…music a lot. Got it. This sort of yeah-no-shit, but still kinda-vague assertions are par for the course when you dig into a lot of pop-psych recapitulations of music studies. And yet, new ones, including this intro, continue to appear. Suffice to say, we are generally curious about why we like the things we like. Essentially, that’s the same thing Fenriz’s “Gangland” Conundrum pokes at. But, the more I think about it, the more I don’t think there’s an easy answer to any of this.

Welcome to the weeds, my land of confused weirdness. Two years in and I’m no longer working on substantiating the hows and whys. Instead, I’m wrestling with the following pre-conundrum: How does my perception, along with other similarly uniquely derived contextual factors, affect the way I listen to and think about music?

This gets complicated pretty quickly and, as I promised shorter intros (again, lol), is probably best experienced as a good ol’ bullet list.

Alright, say “Gangland 2.0″ starts to play. My reaction to that song might be shaped and colored by:

  • Have I heard Iron Maiden before?
  • Have I listened to Iron Maiden a lot?
  • Have I listened to “Gangland” a lot?
  • At what age did I first hear “Gangland” and how did it fit with my culture?
  • What things have happened to me while I was listening to “Gangland”?
  • Did an influential person/group tell me to like/hate “Gangland”? (Do I like or hate them?)
  • Do I know how to play “Gangland” on an instrument?
  • How many knockoff versions of “Gangland” have I heard recently?
  • Do I like the way “Gangland 2.0″ is produced?
  • Am I listening to “Gangland 2.0″ on shitty earbuds?
  • What songs played before “Gangland 2.0″?
  • Am I even paying attention to “Gangland 2.0″?
  • How was I feeling before “Gangland 2.0″ started playing?

That’s barely scratching the surface. Unfortunately, this only begs new conundrums like Do I even have free will when it comes to my initial reaction to “Gangland 2.0″? and Is it possible that “Gangland 2.0″ is actually my favorite song but I’ll never realize it because some variable got in the way? Probably a thousand others, too, if I’m comfortable with not sleeping tonight.

Frustrating, right? All of this reminds me of the search for a unification theory in that the dizzyingly infinite will never square when one very broad concept might be the answer. And, besides, stretching that concept to fit always seems to obscure the miraculous: that in this case, given the huge number of perception-affecting variables, it’s incredible that I even like the thing in front of me, not to mention that other people do, too. –Ian Chainey

10. Hooded Menace – “Sempiternal Grotesqueries”

Location: Joensuu / Helsinki, Finland
Subgenre: death/doom metal

Hooded Menace are as expert at conjuring plodding cemetery creep as they are at laying down measured chugging brutality — “Sempiternal Grotesqueries” highlights both in equal measure over a seemingly quick 10 minutes. The song is a delightful reminder of what makes the band’s brand of gothic horror so exquisite. I mean, look at the track name — we should get Doug back over here to parse some Death Metal English. But more importantly, listen to that sweet dual guitar work, with ominously looming notes suspended in thick brume. When things take a turn toward death metal, it does so like some monstrous engine roaring to life. It’s somewhat hard to believe Hooded Menace turns 10 this year, but we look forward to many more years from one of Finland’s finest. [From Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, out now via Season of Mist.]Wyatt Marshall

9. Akakor – “To Evolve”

Location: Calgary, Canada
Subgenre: death metal

Here streams the lost record by Calgary’s Akakor, an Okazaki Fragments-related dissonant death metal quartet. Parts were recorded around 2011-2012, other parts presumably recently. Vocals were originally planned, but the self-titled album is finally available publicly as an instrumental. In a way, it’s a Bandcamp tombstone memorializing the five-ish years Akakor was active. Somehow, it still smokes. You don’t even have to perform mental gymnastics to grant it present-day allowances. Nope, still fresh, still smokes. Akakor is a buffet of highly detailed death metal belonging to the core-adjacent, Obscura-indebted lineage. Sharp sections are powered by whiplash riffs, inventive bass parts, and a plethora of energetic rhythms often laid on top of each other. That vocals were even in the cards is nuts considering how much stuff is already here and how attention-grabbing it already is. That said stuff has been dusted with a Colin Marston mastering, one which keeps the turbulence from becoming an unrecognizable slurry of sound, is a bonus. I’m glad this is finally out in the world. But I also can’t stop thinking about timing of this release; particularly as it relates to the Sturm und Drang gestation cycle the band members endured to birth this thing. (As stated on the album’s Bandcamp page, emphasis mine: “8 years ago today, we almost died…”.) I’m probably projecting, but “To Evolve,” as a title, is a coincidental reflection on the grim reality of wanting/needing to create challenging, underground metal with other humans. Lo, the tale of Akakor’s tape: cease activity, shelve an unfinished opus for six years, and then kick a freshly completed version onto Bandcamp for free. Heck of an evolution. Not exactly the dream, you know? However, as this perceptive Toilet Ov Hell piece intimates, perhaps Akakor’s recent unearthing is a mixed blessing. After being exposed to, and thus normalizing, similar-in-spirit tech death bugfuckery, are we not more prepared to appreciate this album in 2018? That seems to be borne out by Akakor reporting that it ran out of download credits in less than two weeks. That’s great, feels like a triumph. But…I can’t help but wish Akakor were getting paid. Not that compensation is everything, nor should it be every band’s intention; people getting stoked on Akakor is probably its own reward. That Akakor even exists is probably another, not to mention that it very well would’ve made the rounds in Megaupload link dumps if everything “worked out” in the first place. It’s just…yeah. I don’t know. Maybe the rising tide will lift all boats, those being the projects this band begat: the aforementioned Okazaki Fragments, Spurn, Anakronis, and Eliane Gazzard’s neat noise pieces. The time is right for that. [From Akakor, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

8. Harakiri For The Sky – “Heroin Waltz”

Location: Vienna / Salzburg, Austria
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal / post-black metal

When these guys first appeared with their self-titled album in 2012, and again more prominently with 2014’s Aokigahara, I desperately wanted to dislike them. The aesthetic was too clean and tidy, clearly playing in the same space as their contemporaries in Deafheaven and Lantlôs, yet somehow less post-rock and more overtly emo. (In hindsight, both those records are great, and I was a dummy.) Their third record, however, 2016’s III: Trauma, succeeded by sticking the landing with such flawless execution and grace that it wound up being one of my favorites of the year, still something I reach for often. For the first time (to my ears, at least), Harakiri struck the ideal balance between actual metal and wounded melodicism, landing in the rarefied air occupied by bands like Agalloch, Woods of Desolation, and even Saturnus, and sounding a bit like each but with the cathartic release knob set to “conjugal visit.” For the band’s latest LP, Arson, they appear to stay the course: I don’t yet have a promo so I can’t fully sing its praises, but the singles sound like the Harakiri for the Sky we’ve come to love. “Heroin Waltz” comes with a flashy video about richly symbolic sad things like convalescence, urban decay, dead plants and animal bones, weird masks you wear when you’re alone, apparently, and shooting heroin by candlelight. Or maybe it’s about how shooting heroin by candlelight leads to those other things, which might be a distinctly Austrian take on the opioid epidemic. (From what I’ve read about Austria by Thomas Bernhard, that seems about right.) Regardless, it’s a pretty dope song. You can spin a few other singles at their Bandcamp (“Tomb Omnia” also rules hard), then do the right thing and preorder. [From Arson, out 2/16 via Art of Propaganda Records.]Aaron Lariviere

7. Eternal Valley – “The Awakening Of Autumn Storms”

Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Fewer and fewer bands operating in the increasingly crowded, nature-reverent atmospheric black metal world have the depth to fully bring to life the artist’s vision. A seemingly great idea often falls short through thin production, an overreliance on flimsy lead melodies, or one of a hundred other failings. Eternal Valley doesn’t have these types of problems, of course, which is why we are here. “The Awakening of Autumn Storms” is a monster, a work of both searing anguish and slowly revolving grandeur. Rich, tactile instrumentation makes the journey a reality, and a burning regret runs through the core of the song, rending a beautiful vision asunder until oblivion seems appealing. Wrong season, but for being swept away on bitter cold bleak days, there are few things better than “The Awakening of Autumn Storms.” [From The Falling Light, out now via Heavy Gloom Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

6. Rites Of Thy Degringolade – “The Final Laceration”

Location: Edmonton, Canada
Subgenre: black/death metal

Apologies up front, friends: we’re gonna go long here in the name of context. You’re probably aware there’s an especially dark corner of the metal universe where black and death metal collide in a bloody patchwork of self-serious vitriol and impenetrably dense anti-music. Like most people, you probably don’t spend a lot of time listening to these bands. The subgenre goes by a few different names depending on goals and attire, like “war metal,” “bestial black metal,” or the cleaner but less precise “black/death” (that last one also encompasses stuff like Behemoth, which is not what we’re talking about today). Whatever you call it, most of it’s borderline unlistenable, which is usually the point, to offend the senses in unbending opposition to normalcy and mortal limitations. Most of it is also…how to put this delicately…really goddamn silly. On one end of the spectrum, you have the cross-mocking, goat-worshipping stuff like Black Witchery, who might be easier to take seriously if the band took itself less so. (Behold their greatness here.) And then there’s the much more intense, even less enjoyable stuff like Revenge, where the aesthetic is boiled down to the bones, meant to project a vision of the world in total black and white, the strong and the weak diametrically opposed and locked in eternal battle — so cower and die, maggots. You know these guys aren’t messing around because they’re super serious (therial) about absolutely everything, including: their art (death to color), their message (death to vermin, and we’re all vermin; also, their live singer’s name is Vermin), and most of all their music (which sounds like a burrito fart through a broken stereo). Let’s be clear: I enjoy all these bands, probably more than I should, probably more than the bands intend for anyone to enjoy their “art.” But it’s good to recognize the limitations of the form, which furthers helps you recognize what it looks like when someone else comes along and shreds those limitations. Rites of Thy Degringolade — dégringolade is a cool-guy French word for rapid decline or downfall — hail from the same Canadian black/death micro-sphere as Revenge and Axis of Advance and seem to travel in similar circles in terms of artwork, sonic intensity, and seriosity. But here’s the thing: they do this so much better than anyone else, delivering music that trounces their peers in terms of riff composition, execution, and production, while still rigidly serious on the lyrical front but less laughably so. Earlier albums were more beholden to blasting drums, but even then Rites wrote records you’d want to listen to more than once. On their latest, and their first in 13 years, songs are slower and carry more weight, typically focused on a pounding, percussive throb surrounded by jagged edges. Musically there’s probably more in common with experimental USBM like Leviathan or Palace of Worms than your typical black/death wind tunnel of forgotten riffs, and you might even catch a whiff of Immolation in the angular grooves. Vocals rant and bellow about mantras of strength and imposition of will, all the stuff you’d expect for this style, but you can actually hear what frontman and founder Paulus Kressman is raving about (and no, it’s not about goats or gasmasks). “The Final Laceration” is one of the shorter tracks on the album, faster than most, but still plenty cool. I recommend exploring the new album’s 10-minute title track, “The Blade Philosophical,” when you get the chance. [From The Blade Philosophical, out 3/15 via Nuclear War Now! Productions.]Aaron Lariviere

5. Morke – “The Den Of Wolves”

Location: MN
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

“The Den of Wolves” is the first song from Morke’s Sirens, an album that snuck by our radar in December, the month when the Black Market crew retreats from public life for fevered year-end list making like some troop of disgruntled elves. As you’ll hear, the song wastes no time getting things to a howling start, dropping you in the midst of a maelstrom where searing mournful guitars guide the way while an unsettling undercurrent pulls you toward the depths. Things soon take several poignant twists thereafter, turning away from all out wails to groove-rich passages and more thoughtful instrumental verses. All along, the power of the riff is felt keenly. Morke’s new to us — it’s all the work of one Erik Wing who was quite busy last year, releasing two full-lengths and an EP. He hails from Minnesota where, this time of year, he will undoubtedly find inspiration for music that will delight our ears in the not too distant future. [From Sirens, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

4. Abigor – “All Hail Darkness And Evil”

Location: Vienna, Austria
Subgenre: black metal

Gather round yon hellions for a tale of Austrian ne’er-do-wells: t’was only the last monthly entry of anno 2017 when we encountered the mighty Summoning, one of Austria’s prime exports, and a band unlike others, what with their reliance on Casio-drenched splendor in place of the usual metallic tropes. Historians of the black (metal) arts may recall that Summoning emerged in the mid ’90s as something closer to a real black metal band, with non-programmed drums and fewer ragged keyboards, and they were part of a regional micro-scene called the Austrian Black Metal Syndicate, alongside bands like Pazuzu, Golden Dawn, Pervertum, Trifixion, and most notably, the mighty and mightily restless Abigor. Even if ABMS was a short-lived and probably dumb grouping, it birthed two of metal’s best and weirdest bands, both of whom would seem to have nothing in common, even though they’ve shared members over the years. Where Summoning slipped free from the black metal mold to create something epic, strange, and almost relaxing, Abigor took black metal to its opposite extreme, focusing on riotous violence and relentless experimentation designed to punish ears in the name of blasphemy. If you need a sonic reference point, the light orchestration and chaotic riffing style sounds a bit like the nightmare black-prog of peak-period Emperor pounded into dust by the brutal riff salad of Immortal circa Blizzard Beasts. And Abigor would go much further on later albums, such as the digital schizophrenia of Fractal Possession or the longform abstraction of Time is the Sulphur in the Veins of the Saint – An Excursion on Satan’s Fragmenting Principle (now there’s a title for you). These guys lost their minds years ago, which has kept their music interesting, even as they become further untethered from traditional black metal. But — hark! What noise is this? Abigor’s latest, Hollenzwang (Chronicles of Perdition), sheds the band’s shapeshifting skin in favor of fire-breathing black metal insanity, like the days of yore only more…intense, perhaps? With “All Hail Darkness and Evil,” the weirdness is still there but it’s subsumed by the din. Hard-panned guitars spit fire over lunatic screams and monastic moans. Riffs fly at all angles, embracing chaos beneath blasting drums, with tendrils of melody that can’t quite be smothered by the noise or croaking vocals. Overall, it’s a Boschean vision of hell, where chaos and impure experimentation reign above all. And it’s wonderful. [From Höllenzwang (Chronicles of Perdition), out 1/29 via Avantgarde Music.]Aaron Lariviere

3. Slugdge – “Putrid Fairytale”

Location: Lancashire, England
Subgenre: death metal

In six years, Matt Moss (vocals) and Kev Pearson (guitars) have taken Slugdge from DIY Bandcamp band to a shiny new jewel in Willowtip’s gem-encrusted crown. This up-from-nothing career path makes the duo kinda relatable in the same way that Steph Curry’s game is to basketball players who aren’t blessed from birth with 40-inch verticals. Like, Oh yeah, I guess my short, string-bean ass could go from zilch to MVP if I just logged the time. Sure…but, haha, no. “Putrid Fairytale,” the lead stream from fourth LP Esoteric Malacology, thoroughly annihilates any average-Joe fantasies thanks to an innate, third-eye-pried conceptual understanding of how to make sweet-ass death metal. Like prior slimy peregrinations, Moss and Pearson resequence DNA strands pulled from Carcassian progressions, Napalm Death dirges, and sweeping black metal into their own image, creating a texture-rich, astronomic saga. But, though compared often, this is the song where you can hear the duo slithering up the steps to challenge for Edge of Sanity’s throne. “Fairytale” finds a similar Crimson-hued balance between melody and heaviness, ambitious grandiosity and welcoming catchiness. The musicianship is tight enough to impress, but loose enough to feel human. Same can be said for the songwriting which moves so naturally in such an unforced way. And yeah, if you’re new, these are songs about slugs, but Slugdge’s depth and compositional acuity makes celestial gastropod mythology resonate more deeply than a lot of things. (“From slime they came, and into slime they shall return“!) As the Doomsday Clock ticks down, it’s not even that weird typing that anymore. [From Esoteric Malacology, out 3/1 via Willowtip Records.]Ian Chainey

2. Krukh – “Безглуздість”

Location: St. Louis, MO
Subgenre: black metal

Here is Krukh, some multidimensional beast that has appeared out of nowhere and now urgently demands our undivided attention. For me, it has it — based upon “Безглуздість,” I want to hear no album more than this one this year. It crushes, it blazes, it vacillates in serpentine fashion. In a booming voice it screams doomed proclamations into the abyss. Fans of the Icelandic black metal craze of late will hear some of the raw subterranean fury that tends to define the style in Krukh, but whereas Iceland’s best seem to burrow into volcanic rock, Krukh takes off into a troubled night sky where warbled guitar leads streak a dark tableau. Krukh features Markov Soroka on bass, guitar, and vocals (Tchornobog, Aureole, Slow), and his unrivaled talent for creating surreal, disturbing yet strangely alluring atmospheres is on full display. Sorokov notes that Krukh features two immigrants — he, from Ukraine, and N. on lead guitars from Uzbekistan. On drums, Shawn Eldridge of Death Fortress (and others) brings a hurried urgency. Безглуздість portends great things, and, as a bonus, it features some of the sickest artwork we’ve come across in some time. [From Безглуздість, out Spring 2018 via Fallen Empire Records.]Wyatt Marshall

1. Mournful Congregation – “Scripture Of Exaltation And Punishment”

Location: Adelaide, Australia
Subgenre: funeral doom metal

No other band does funeral doom at this level. We could talk about the depth-charge crush of the opening chords or the cannon-crack of the snare, the body-shaking bellow of singer Damon Good (also of the weirdly great StarGazer), familiar traits they share with the other untouchable bands in this genre — mainly Evoken and Esoteric, who both rule in entirely different ways. (And yes, a tour involving all three would be the greatest thing in the history of boundless time.) But what sets Mournful Congregation apart to my ear are the winding, wailing lead guitars, constantly in motion, tugging at your guts as much as your heartstrings, pulling us down to the grave soil only to reverse course, hoisting us higher and higher into thin air, a whiplash of feeling apparently meant to rip us to shreds, since that’s what happens to my mind when I try to make sense of a 15-minute track with this much emotional travel. It’s not just that they’re better at this than anyone — and they generally are, despite the aforementioned rulage of Evoken and Esoteric, both of whom have a very different relationship to melody and emotion — it’s that no one else even knows how to do this, at least not this particular thing at this level of excellence. There are plenty of funeral doom bands that lay on the gothic cheese to try and squeeze out a few tears (see bands like Draconian or Funeral), and there are plenty of phenomenal death/doom bands that can grind your bones into dust (see Winter or dISEMBOWELMENT), but Mournful Congregation are a world unto themselves, as heavy as anyone with a better ear for melody and pain. Because I could basically rave about this band for hours, I’ll stop myself and instead point you to an actual love letter about Mournful Congregation (but more importantly, an excellent review) written by Black Market editor emeritus Michael Nelson back in 2011 for Invisible Oranges. Talking about their then-new (and still incredible) album The Book of Kings, Mike wrote: “This is not, to me, an album that feels glum or joyless or even overly solemn. It is a genuinely, sincerely awesome album — awesome, as in it inspires and demands awe.” If “Scripture of Exaltation and Punishment” — the first single off Mournful Congregation’s fifth album, The Incubus of Karma — is any indication, the new album might be even better. [From The Incubus of Karma, out now via Osmose Productions/20 Buck Spin.]Aaron Lariviere

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